As published in the Crain’s Chicago Business on Wednesday, April 20, 2016.
Chicago is becoming a “greener city,” but let’s be candid about some key challenges and the need for solutions moving forward. Environmental progress is being achieved together with job creation and economic development. The old myth about jobs versus the environment is simply that: old and false.
Wind Power: Illinois has leaped from no wind power in 2003 to more than 3,842 megawatts today. A decade ago, who thought that Illinois would become #5 in the nation for wind power capacity and that Chicago would be now be home to 11 major wind power corporate headquarters?
Next: Illinois policymakers should say “no” to Exelon’s opposition and finally modernize the Illinois Renewable Energy Standard, which helps drive wind power development. Let’s make it work well and advance Illinois’ national leadership in the restructured electricity market.
Solar Energy: Our next boom. The City and County are advancing policies to streamline solar energy installations by speeding up permitting and standardizing grid connections. Solar energy is truly an improving disruptive technology, especially combined with battery technology improvements.
Next: How we can accelerate solar energy by better using Chicago’s many flat rooftops? First, remove regulatory barriers that protect monopoly utilities from competition. Second, the Illinois Commerce Commission and Springfield legislators should adopt policies that better enable community solar projects for local businesses and neighborhood residents. Third, support Argonne National Labs’ goal of making batteries that are five times more efficient at one-fifth the cost. That’s a game changer.
Energy Efficiency: There’s a quiet revolution occurring with more energy efficient lighting, appliances, cooling and heating equipment, pumps and motors, and other technologies. Commonwealth Edison reports that electricity sales declined (-1.5%) in 2015 in Northern Illinois while the Chicago regional economy grew about 3.0%. Our economy is growing—efficiently.
Next: Let’s make sure that homes in all Chicago neighborhoods gain energy efficiency benefits through job-creating retrofits that can reduce electricity and natural gas bills.
Public Transit: Chicago can’t be a greener “city that works” unless the CTA is modernized.
Next: Let’s face it—no good public transit, no green city. Chicago’s public transit system must become faster and provide improved, more efficient passenger services. CTA is working on it. Mayor Emanuel, Senators Durbin and Kirk, and Congressmen Lipinski and Quigley are trying to gain more federal funds for CTA modernization. That’s a priority and necessity.
Higher-Speed Rail: Chicago is the natural hub of the growing Midwest higher-speed rail network connecting Chicago and Milwaukee, Detroit and St. Louis, and the mid-sized cities in-between.
Next: Modernize Union Station so it works well for intercity passenger rail, is attractive to new visitors and can be a multimodal hub connecting with CTA while anchoring West Loop commercial development.
Great Lakes: The Great Lakes ecosystem is the Chicago region’s global gem, vital source of drinking water supply and place of recreational joy. The Obama Administration’s investment of about $2 billion in the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative is paying off. Water quality should improve as investments are made in upgrading treatment facilities, building green infrastructure, and restoring wetlands and habitat.
Next: Water efficiency is more than 20 years behind energy efficiency. We can’t afford to waste fresh water that the rest of the world craves and values highly. Let’s figure out savvy ways of using lower-cost greywater for industrial processes and save fresh water for drinking. Let’s make Chicago a water efficiency leader among the Great Lakes cities.
Chicago River: Our namesake river should be a gem that increases recreational enjoyment and property values for all. There’s progress as the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District finally begins to disinfect wastewater. The Chicago River, however, is still not “fishable and swimmable.”
Next: The new Riverwalk and river-focused development is helping build support for the importance of cleaning up the river. MWRD should continue to step up its pollution reduction actions and equipment investments that pay off in clean water benefits.
Clean air, clean water, cleaner energy and fewer toxics are important values shared by all Chicagoans. This Earth Day, let’s be proud of our progress, and let’s seize opportunities to advance a cleaner, greener and safer community that works for all.
Howard A. Learner is the executive director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center, the Midwest’s leading environmental and economic development advocacy organization.